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Theology as Tedium Tremendum?: Evolving Expressions

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October 9th, 2009

 

What does the word “theology” mean? In my personal vocabulary, there's been quite an evolution in its meaning.

Twelve years ago theology was the torturous part of Bible College that I was required to endure so that I could become a youth pastor in my denomination. Once I had completed my theology classes, otherwise know in the Latin as Tedium Tremendum, I'd be able to do the important work of ministry. I wanted to get active with my faith, not just sit around thinking about how big God was or debate people on whether we had eternal security or not.

This kind of theological deliberation seemed boring and irrelevant in comparison to the exciting possibilities of leading kids to Christ or showing them how meaningful relationship with a personal God could be. I never wanted to do theology, I just wanted to do ministry.

Connecting the Dots

When I reflect back on this experience, I think I was beginning to experience a kind of dissonance or disconnect between rationalistic constructions of evangelical theology and my own personal piety. My piety, or inward experience and knowledge of Christ, was lively, meaningful, and lifechanging; theology, on the other hand, seemed like a necessary evil. I'm not saying that my theological training was explicitly evil; it just seemed more like a protective set of dogmatic principles or rules to help me avoid becoming a heretic.

And who wants to be a heretic? Not me, even though I disliked my experiences of academic theology. I may have never been in danger of being burned at the stake, but I could be kicked out of my denomination or lose my golden-boy status with my home church. Those were real possibilities that terrified me. Yet something unusual began to occur in my third or fourth year in ministry. As I continued to minister to teens, I became increasingly agitated by this disconnect between what I'd learned academically and what I was trying to express and live out.

All of this made me wonder. Maybe theology wasn't just for old German guys wearing thick round glasses with black rims (see Karl Barth and Jurgen Moltmann) or for older pastors (with their hair just graying at their temples) who would dogmatically blare their opinions on millennialism and women's ordination at district conferences. Maybe there was something desperately important—even crucial—about a youth pastor who would do theology.

Previously in my youth ministry I'd been working to state clearly and concisely a basic understanding of the plan of salvation or the way to appropriate the forgiveness of the cross. These were, and I think still are, very important issues to work on, but I was ready to move from honing my explanations of my own experiential and biblical faith to connecting it with my apparently Calvinistic-Reformed tradition. I was embarking on what Augustine famously called fides quaerens intellectum,or faith seeking understanding.

I felt a bit nervous about this new move towards a more constructive approach to theology, but evangelical theologian Clark Pinnock helped put my fears to rest when he wrote in his very clear and easy-to-read Reason Enough that “it is in man's nature to want to find out. We are teleological beings, set upon finding clues to the meaning of it all.” When I read this I first thought, “What does teleological mean?” So I grabbed my Concise Dictionary of Theology off of the shelf and read this: “Teleology: The study of apparent order or purpose in the universe.”

Theology as Teleology

I've recently resigned from a ministry posting, and some of our students who were in the program during this early stage of my theological struggles recently shared with me that my sermons during that period of time were really helpful and challenging but, at times, confusing. I said to them that this made sense because, at times, I was confused, too! It was as if I were starting a rebuilding phase in my faith journey. Don't get me wrong; I wasn't reinventing the wheel, just tweaking it.

I stumbled across a quote by Otto Neurath during this time that expresses my methodology (if you want to call it that): “We are like sailors who on the open sea must reconstruct their ship but are never able to start afresh from the bottom. Where a beam is taken away a new one must at once be put there, and for this the rest of the ship is used as support. In this way, by using the old beams and driftwood the ship can be shaped entirely anew, but only by gradual reconstruction.”

Once again I was fascinated. My theological journey wasn't about reinventing my theology, but reworking it. It was taking hold of what I already knew and understood (intellectually, at least), but trying to connect it with my experiential faith. My Calvinistic-Reformed tradition held clear ideas about a Christian view of reality, but these views felt disjointed with my personal experience and understanding of my faith. So what to do? I started to move a few of the beams and boards around. Throughout this process I embraced some new ideas about theology—for me, anyway.

Organic Exploration

First, theology isn't just a set of doctrines to memorize, but rather a pulsing, growing construct formed by the Bible, prayer, conversations, and life experiences. I like to view my theological inquiries in the same way that the post-liberal theological movement does—as an experiment. William Placher has noted in Narratives of a Vulnerable God that his book should be seen as “one exercise in testing a particular theological research program.”

Isn't that great? Placher recognizes that theology is an exploratory endeavor. He's willing to research familiar theological terrain with an eye for new possibilities. As an evangelical youth pastor I began to wonder how sovereignty functioned. How am I free or not free? I was curious about the Calvinist conception of total depravity. Is humanity really that corrupt? (After a middle school lock-in, I generally feel fairly comfortable affirming that doctrine.)

At one point I asked our staff whether the Bible was only really true for those who appropriate it that way. I knew I was in trouble when all the faces in the room turned towards me and the eyebrows went into penetrating frown mode. Placher is a very accomplished “professional” theologian, he is fairly theologically conservative; yet he humbly recognizes that, at times, a robust theology is open to new appropriations. Thus, he too is willing to move a few planks around in hopes of coming a bit closer to the truth about things.

Personal Dissonance

Second, deep theological thinking comes from personal dissonance. I've found that many of the deepest issues I've worked through are a result of my own theological or social concerns. I once read an article by a theologian criticizing the atonement as an example of divine child abuse. After all, it depicts a father sending an innocent son to die so that the parent might be satisfied.

This article provoked some worry and curiosity on my part. I wondered, “Could that be right? Are we preaching something that subversively endorses abuse?” This lead to some serious research. For more information try Placher's Narratives of a Vulnerable God or the immensely readableRecovering the Scandal of the Cross: Atonement in New Testament & Contemporary Contexts by Joel B. Green and Mark D. Baker.

I think most of us have issues that grab us by the throat and seem to demand a response. An article in the paper, current events, a line from a song or a poem, or a question from a youth group attendee can tweak my curiosity. It gets me wondering, thinking, and experimenting with the meaning and depth of the input. The subject becomes a part of my life. I go through a process of trolling through my mind and the Bible. I'm casting a net and then dragging the results into my study as I pray and go through devotions. This is the ground for theological growth and study: that's all I do. I don't scour Karl Barth's Church Dogmatics (14 Volumes and almost 10,000 pages) but rather grab a small book or surf the Web for material and then pray it through.

Ancient-Future

Third, I must respect and honor the labor, anguish, and work that my forbears have put into their theological studies. I can get a bit critical when I hear people teaching what I consider old or outdated ideas. But as a venerable, 81-year-old theology professor once said to my class: “Remember when you are doing your book reports, the people you are reviewing have forgotten more than you have ever known.”

I think his point is clear. In our efforts to be theologically savvy for a postmodern world, we can become too critical and negative and overlook the value and meaning that older doctrinal and theological forms had to the church in their original historical contexts. I may move a plank here and there, but I can still recognize that John Calvin and I are on the same ship—even though Calvin uses bigger nails than I.

Grounded in Reality

Fourthly, the nature of reality is a burning issue for young people. How weird is it to realize that some teens don't just want to know how to accept Christ but also to understand how reality functions? The movie The Matrixopened up many issues for our group about the nature of reality. I didn't define words like metaphysics and epistemology for our group, but I did try to talk about a Christian perception of reality. Questions we covered revolved around what makes us human (or how to become truly human), where God is in events like 9/11, and the process of salvation.

Since that time, I've had ongoing conversations with a number of teens about the challenge of a Christian perception of reality. Kevin was my free will theist debate partner; Owen wanted to know how we could be sure that Christians were closer to the truth of reality than Buddhists; Andrew had a hunch that all religions interact with the same being named God but just understood him/her through their own cultural lenses.

Permission to Explore

Currently I continue to treat theological study as the permission I need to explore and try to understand the deep places in the Christian faith. Theology is no longer an act of rote memorization that requires vats of coffee to survive. Instead, it now feels like an exploration into strange new worlds. (Can anyone hear the voice of William Shatner saying this?)

Often in my studying I find that there are many excellent academic evangelicals wrestling with these same issues. And for the record, I'm slowly becoming the older pastor (with the graying hair at my temples) who gets up at denominational meetings and says a word or two. I do this because my theology demands it.

C.S. Lewis sums up my thoughts well in his classic, The Great Divorce: “Once you were a child; once you knew what inquiry was for. You asked questions because you wanted answers, and you were glad when you had found them. Become that child again: even now.”

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